38 years ago, over 70,000 packed into Wembley Stadium for Live Aid. There was a simulcast going on in Philadelphia, but the London concert is the one most synonymous with the charity event. Everyone from Led Zeppelin to Elton John performed, and while Queen’s legendary performance is widely associated with the event, it was U2 who made a career for themselves that night.
Again, everyone has likely seen the images of Freddie Mercury sporting the white tank top and bright blue jeans from Live Aid during Queen’s set. It’s considered the highlight of the event, and rightfully so. Mercury had the crowd in the palm of his hand, but so did another singer.
Packed between Paul Young and Dire Straits, U2, a band with four albums out at the time but yet to fully break on through to the other side (a.k.a. the mainstream), made their way onto the stage. The four men from Dublin hardly looked like rockstars — Bono sported a mullet, The Edge a white button-down, and Adam Clayton wore an oversized shirt. But that’s neither here nor there.
They kicked off their set with a performance of their War classic, “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” The song — which was written about “The Troubles” in Ireland and serves as a very anti-war song despite its scorching sound — was kicked off by Larry Mullen Jr.’s marching band-like iconic drumline. The Edge’s signature arpeggio riff and Clayton’s thumping bassline then make their way as Bono vocalizes the first few notes of the song.
Bono sings the opening lyrics, “I can’t believe the news today/Oh, I can’t close my eyes and make it go away.”
It’s a fiery performance featuring Bono walking onto the little landing below the stage (a place he’d later travel to later in their set), and it went on without a hitch. U2, if nothing else, are professionals when it comes to live performances. Bono didn’t scale any scaffolding or wave a white flag (he didn’t have to; some in the crowd did that themselves), but the message was sent loud and clear.
It was then time for their next song, “Bad.” U2 fans know the significance of this song when it comes to live shows. The song rarely misses a tour, and in recent years, Bono will perform an extended snippet of another song (typically from another artist) ranging from David Bowie’s “Heroes” (a personal favorite) to Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.” That was still the case in 1985, but we’ll get there.
The song is long enough on its own — the studio version of “Bad” runs over six minutes — and while live performances typically met or exceeded that, it’s known that U2 wanted to play arguably their biggest hit at the time, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” after their second song to close their set.
That didn’t happen.
As the iconic loop track began and The Edge began playing his simple, but effective riff, Bono began sampling Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love” — a song he’d return to later in this performance. To be completely honest, the opening minutes of this performance of “Bad” are anything but what the title suggests.
All of that went out the window about six minutes into the song. At that point, Bono hopped back down on the smaller stage and began signaling to security guards protecting the barrier between the audience and the stage. He was pointing out to no avail before taking matters into his own hand. Bono nearly went into the crowd himself to extract a couple of women who appeared to be getting trampled. Once one of the girls was taken out of the crowd, Bono shared a quick dance and moment with her before returning to the smaller stage. That’s when he was greeted by two more women to which he gave a quick smooch and went back into the song.
But by the time Bono got back on stage, the song was running too long. He then pivoted and as”Bad” began to dwindle down, he sang his final “Wide awake” refrains before going into a medley of snippets. First up was The Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” and “Sympathy for the Devil,” before closing out with another Lou Reed song, “Walk on the Wild Side.”
A performance anything but “Bad”
When it was all said and done, Bono walked off the stage visibly annoyed. This particular rendition of “Bad’ ran nearly 12 minutes, and the rest of U2 were probably annoyed that they had to cut their biggest song to date from their set. And I’m sure that at the moment, it seemed like U2 blew a big opportunity. But their next album, The Joshua Tree, was the crossover hit that they needed and brought them to a new level of stardom. The band is still touring to this day and is set to open the MSG Sphere in September.
And if nothing else, this put U2’s (and particularly Bono’s) showmanship on full display for a wide audience. So many tuned into this iconic event, and, hopefully, it got the band more fans along the way who attended shows where these types of interactions are anything but uncommon. In “Bad,” the final refrain of “Wide awake” is met with the line “I’m not sleeping.” Rest assured, while U2 was on stage at Live Aid, no one was asleep.
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